with Brent D. Griffiths

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On The Hill

ZOOMING IN ON THE NEW WASHINGTON: The first major “in person” Senate hearing on the coronavirus crisis which lasted nearly four hours — solidified the beginning of Washington's new normal. 

Four of the nation's top health officials warned lawmakers during the virtual hearing about the deadly risks of opening states and cities too quickly — and the potential for a resurgence of the disease. 

With the death toll crossing 81,000 in the United States, and at least 1,363,000 cases reported, the witnesses outlined a long slog in developing a vaccine and even therapeutics to ease the severity of the disease — and even to ramp up contact tracing and the nation's public health laboratory capacity. But the hearing itself was a snapshot of the ways in which the pandemic is bringing Washington power centers back online even as it changes business as usual. 

  • Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Rufus beamed in to chair the hearing from his rustic-looking home in Tennessee. In a sign of the still-prevalent risks: Alexander is self-isolating due “out of an abundance of caution” after one of his staff members tested positive for coronavirus.

All four witnesses appeared remotely, as most came into contact with a White House staffer who tested positive for coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, appeared to be taking the call from his home office. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield appeared before a cluttered bookshelf against a teal-painted wall and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn apparently chose a Getty stock image as his virtual background of choice. President Trump’s coronavirus testing czar, Adm. Brett Giroir, who has no known exposure, appeared in an official-looking office before four flags.

The virtual hearing allowed senators to grill the witnesses from their kitchens, living rooms and what appeared to be man caves with signs of their personal lives — from framed pictures, quirky posters, and fresh flowers — peppering the scenes. 

Other senators chose to testify from inside the briefing room, sitting six feet apart from each other. Further highlighting the split on lawmakers' approaches: Some wore face coverings. 

Others did not.

The U.S. is now among governments across the world from Canada to the European Union that have moved to remote governance. 

Even highly anticipated oral arguments from the U.S. Supreme Court are being conducted remotely via telephone and live stream for the second week in a row. Aside from jarring moments such as the sound of a toilet flushing, the broadcasts have allowed for the court's work to resume and are making history on their own.

Politicians! They're just like us: The Senate hearing provided intimate peeks into lawmakers' otherwise shielded private lives. And moments of levity have emerged as lawmakers adjust to life on Zoom, Skype and WebEx. 

We got new insight into Sen. Bernie Sanders's musical taste even during a grim line of questioning, as the Vermont senator grilled Fauci about the true death toll, which many Trump allies frequently insist is wrongly inflated.

  • Fauci argued that the virus-related death toll is “almost certainly higher than what's been reported: “Most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than that number, because given the situation, particularly in New York City, when they were really strapped with a very serious challenge to their health-care system, that there may have been people who died at home … who are not counted as it, because they never really got to the hospital,” he said. 

And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) sat in front of a wall plastered with photos of his grandchildren as he panned the White House's celebration of its coronavirus testing efforts. “I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever, Romney said. The senator pointed out that South Korea which Trump boasted the U.S. has surpassing in testing capacity alongside Giroir at a news conference this week had many more tests available earlier was able to better control its outbreak.

  • “Yesterday, you celebrated that we had done more tests and more tests per capita even than South Korea. But you ignored the fact that they accomplished theirs at the beginning of the outbreak while we treaded water during February and March,” Romney told Giroir.
  • “So partially as a result of that, they have 256 deaths, and we have almost 80,000 deaths. I find our testing record nothing to celebrate whatsoever. The fact is their test numbers are going down, down, down, down now is because they don’t have the kind of outbreak we have,” Romney added.

Still, the conditions are not ideal for policymakers or even the reporters covering them, who cannot sidebar with lawmakers or witnesses for comment. The virtual new format inevitably changes the intensity of debate, and will probably mitigate the pressure that House and Senate leaders are able to exert on their members in-person. 

When it comes to the Supreme Court, CNN's Joan Biskupic says the new medium could affect the outcome of the cases being argued because of the “altered the nature of the court's usual freewheeling but substantive give-and-take.” 

  • “Lawyers have fretted about the inability to see the justices' faces and read their demeanor. That's the same for journalists and others listening in. No longer may clues be gleaned from an expression of doubt as a justice leans forward from the bench. It is hard to know whether the justices have been satisfied by a lawyer's response or whether they might be budging in ideologically charged cases that typically split the five conservatives and four liberals, per Biskupic. 

Lawmakers are quickly finding ways to adapt. The screen between Fauci and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sat in the briefing room without a face covering, did not stop a pointed exchange between the two from playing out.  

  • “So I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” said Paul, who recovered after becoming the first U.S. senator to test positive for the disease, arguing that schools could reopen broadly in the fall because kids appear to be less at risk. “And as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision. We can listen to your advice, but there are people on the other side saying there’s not going to be a surge and that we can safely open the economy and the facts will bear this out.”
  • “I have never made myself out to be the end-all and only voice in this,” Fauci retorted. “I think we better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effect.” (Fauci described new cases of infected children with a “very strange inflammatory syndrome” and per our Post colleagues, “dismissed the notion that there might be a cure or effective treatments in time for schools to reopen in the fall.”)

The transformation of political life will only become more obvious as the election year progresses. 

There's already a split emerging between the parties as we get closer to November. The Democratic Party this week announced moves to suggest that it's moving toward a virtual convention — while the Trump campaign maintains that the Republican National Convention will still take place as planned in Charlotte, North Carolina. In person. 

  • Milwaukee a maybe: “With a vote of the rules and bylaws committee, which met by conference call, Democratic National Committee leaders agreed to give convention planners broad flexibility to change the structure and tradition of the nominating convention. The proposal passed unanimously, and it will be taken up in the coming weeks for ratification by a vote by mail of the full Democratic National Committee,” our colleague Michael Scherer reports. 
  • Charlotte still on: “We don’t plan on canceling our convention,” Lara Trump, the president's daughter-in-law and a campaign adviser, told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday. “We plan on going ahead with it.”
  • While Biden has no plans to return to in-person campaigning in the near future, Trump is also “eager to resume political travel in June, including holding his signature rallies by the end of the summer in areas where there are few cases,” advisers told our colleagues last week.
  • “Trump’s political team has begun discussions about organizing a high-dollar, in-person fundraiser next month, as well as preliminary planning about staging rallies and what sort of screenings might be necessary, according to Republican National Committee officials and outsider advisers,” Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker and Yasmeen Abutaleb report. “One option being considered is holding rallies outdoors, rather than in enclosed arenas, a senior administration official said.”

The president has already picked up his travel to battleground states again in his bid to reopen the country. He made an appearance at an Arizona Honeywell International plant that produces respirator masks last week. 

Not everyone is on board with his coronavirus etiquette: Our colleague Carol Leonnig scooped yesterday that Trump's visit to a Pennsylvania factory scheduled for last Friday was canceled by factory officials who “ultimately asked to postpone, worried that a visit from Trump could jeopardize both the safety of the workers and the plant’s ability to produce special material for masks and other medical gear, according to two people familiar with the decision and documents reviewed by The Post.” 

  • More: “The White House’s efforts to set up an event at the Pennsylvania factory came as Trump and Vice President Pence have made a number of public appearances in recent weeks to showcase the administration’s work combating the health crisis — gatherings that health experts say have created heightened health risks for both them and those around them.

And there will be big debates in the nation's capital about how to transition key staples of government: Voting on the Hill and at the ballot box. 

Expect movement on this today: House leaders have yet to find a compromise on changing House rules to allow proxy voting and remote hearings but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) and top Democrats “now say they will move ahead with a rules change anyway,” reports Politico's Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris, and John Bresnahan. 

  • The House Rule Committee will meet Thursday to approve the plan, which will allow lawmakers to cast votes remotely for colleagues who can’t travel to Washington amid the outbreak. The full House would then take up the rules change — which would only be in effect during this current crisis — on Friday.”

Democrats are also pushing for universal vote-by-mail to protect voters from health risks at the ballot box amid the pandemic — a new politically fraught issue that our colleague Erica Werner reports Trump and many Republicans oppose because they say it invites fraud. 

  • Hot button topic: Pelosi revealed a fifth coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday that among other things, “includes provisions to ensure that all voters can vote by mail in the November election and all subsequent federal elections, an idea that Trump and many Republicans have rejected because they say it invites fraud,” Erica writes.
  • The bill directs “more than $3 trillion to state and local governments, health systems, and a range of other initiatives, setting up a huge clash with Senate Republicans and the White House over how to deal with the sputtering economy.” 

Outside the Beltway

AMERICANS ARE MORE PESSIMISTIC ON GETTING BACK TO NORMAL: “Americans are curbing their expectations about when it will be safe for gatherings of 10 or more people, with about 2 in 3 adults now saying it will not be until July or later before those events can happen, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll,” Dan Balz and Scott Clement report. 

  • The expected timeline has shifted substantially in just a few weeks: “The timeline has shifted substantially in just the past few weeks, as the number of covid-19 cases and deaths continue to rise. In a similar poll in mid-April, 51 percent of all Americans said they thought gatherings of 10 or more people would be safe by the end of June. That has fallen to 32 percent in the latest survey, with 66 percent saying it will take longer for gatherings to be safe.”

There's still strong support for staying home: “With more than half the states moving to reopen their economies, and other data showing more Americans on the move even in the face of shelter-at-home orders, the poll finds widespread support for people in communities to practice social distancing, wear masks outside and follow other practices health officials have recommended to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus,” our colleagues write.

The Policies

HOUSE DEMS UNVEIL $3 TRILLION VIRUS RESPONSE BILL: The package would direct money “to state and local governments, health systems, and a range of other initiatives, setting up a huge clash with Senate Republicans and the White House over how to deal with the sputtering economy,” Erica Werner reports.

  • Republicans pledged to kill it, sight unseen: GOP lawmakers described “it as a liberal wish list that would go nowhere in the Republican-led Senate,” our colleague writes. “For example, the bill would suspend a tax provision for two years that limits tax breaks for upper-income households in high-tax states, something Democrats have tried to change for several years. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was at work on crafting liability protections for businesses instead."

The House is expected to vote on the bill on Friday: The 1,800-page legislation establishes a $200 billion “Heroes Fund” to extend hazard pay to essential workers, our colleague writes. “It would also send a second — and larger — round of direct payments to individual Americans, up to $6,000 per household.”

  • Progressive lawmakers want more time: “Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), leaders of the congressional Progressive Caucus, are seeking to postpone any vote until next week so that members can fully digest the bill and potentially push for changes,” Politico's Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan report. “CPC members have been advised to say they're ‘undecided’ when party leaders conduct a whip check, according to a notice sent out to progressives.”

From the Courts

FLYNN CASE PUT ON HOLD: “A U.S. judge put on hold the Justice Department’s move to drop charges against Michael Flynn, saying he expects independent groups and legal experts to argue against the bid to exonerate [Trump’s] former national security adviser of lying to the FBI,” Spencer S. Hsu and Carol D. Leonnig report.

  • What it means: U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan, a veteran 72-year-old jurist, appears to have ruled out immediate action on the department's highly irregular of reversing its stance on upholding Flynn’s guilty plea.

SCOTUS SEEMS SPLIT OVER TRUMP SUBPOENAS: “The highly anticipated Supreme Court arguments over [Trump’s] efforts to block disclosure of his income tax returns and private financial records suggested the possibility of a mixed outcome,” Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow report.

  • Reading the tea leaves: “In general, the justices seemed more troubled by subpoenas issued by three House committees than with the ones coming from New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. None indicated they agreed with the assertion from Trump’s private lawyer Jay Sekulow that the president enjoyed immunity from investigation while in office. There was no discussion of whether the court lacked authority to decide the merits of the dispute, even though the justices themselves had requested briefing on the subject.”

We might not see Trump's tax returns or financial records before November: “Several justices suggested there might be more work for lower courts to do, which could delay any turnover of the documents being sought by congressional Democrats and Manhattan’s district attorney until after November’s election,” our colleagues write.

  • Experts say an unanimous court is very unlikely: “The court’s previous major decisions involving presidential authority were unanimous: Richard M. Nixon was ordered to turn over White House tape recordings, and Bill Clinton was required to respond to a sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones, our colleagues write. "[Some justices led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., seemed to be looking for middle ground that would avoid a deeply split decision in a highly charged political atmosphere.”

The Campaign

RECAP ON TUESDAY'S ELECTIONS: “The GOP held a congressional seat in rural Wisconsin and aimed to seize a Democratic one in suburban California as voters cast ballots in special elections on Tuesday,” Colby Itkowitz reports.

  • Congress's newest member: “In Wisconsin’s 7th District, GOP state Sen. Tom Tiffany defeated Democratic school board member Tricia Zunker,” our colleague writes. “Tiffany will fill the seat left vacant by Republican Sean P. Duffy, who abruptly left Congress in the fall, citing health complications with a child due in October. The child was born a month early and needed heart surgery.”

The latest from California: “Republican Mike Garcia jumped to an early lead … over Democrat Christy Smith in the runoff for a House seat in the Los Angeles suburbs, raising GOP hopes of flipping a blue California congressional district for the first time since 1998,” the Los Angeles Times's Arit John reports.

  • It's not over yet: California counts ballots that are postmarked on election day as long as they reach local election officials by Friday. That means it might be a few days before a formal winner is declared to replace former Rep. Katie Hill who resigned after admitting to an affair with a campaign staffer after wresting the seat from Republicans for the first time in 26 years.

Progressive challenger repeats upset in Nebraska: Kara Eastman will again take on Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) in the Omaha-area 2nd District this November. Eastman bested Ann Ashford, the wife of former congressman Brad Ashford (D-Neb.), whom Eastman upset in 2018 as he tried to reclaim his seat, the Omaha World-Herald's Henry J. Cordes and Aaron Sanderford report.

  • More details: Bacon's seat is a top target for Democrats after he narrowly beat Eastman in 2018. But that came during the midterm's blue wave, leading pundits to surmise that chances for Eastman to win the rematch will be even more difficult.
  • The state allowed in-person voting, but received nearly 400,000 mail-in ballots mail-in ballots: “Officials had encouraged people to vote by mail, though Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and Secretary of State Bob Evnen both pledged to forge ahead with an in-person primary even though many other states have rescheduled theirs or switched to all-mail voting,” the Associated Press's Grant Schulte reports. “Voters easily broke the previous mail-in voting record of around 70,000 in 2018, which includes people who requested early ballots and voters in early rural counties who receive them automatically.”